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By reflex, I had already cast my clumsy [Wind Wall], forgetting my agreement with Durandal, but the holy sword spirit didn’t miss a beat. His Earth mana shield formed around the children and the fallen mage, instead.
He had read the tactical situation faster than me. I couldn’t shield the others myself, because I couldn’t locate the new attacker, and my shield was too small to spread out against a wide field of attack. So, without a comment, he had taken care of it and left guarding my body to me.
The water bullets kept flying out of the forest next to the road, but they seemed to be coming from multiple points within the foliage. I only had a moment to spot the mana forming before each shot flew out at me, and the source was continuously changing position.
Thank goodness it wasn’t forest on both sides. The ground on the side of the road at my back was all fields. Up here in the highlands, the growing season was still young, and the crop behind me stood not even ankle-high. Nobody would be hiding in that field. I could keep the threat in my field of vision.
I focused every sense I had, as sharp as I could, but found nothing but vague mana spreading through the trees. What I was doing was useless as long as I couldn’t identify the enemy though, so I gave up on that plan.
“[Body Fortification]!,” I yelled, pushing Earth into the spell, then dropped my [Wind Wall] and dashed over to recover my sword. As long as Durandal’s mighty defense sheltered the halflings, I didn’t have to hold a position in front of them anyway.
Once I had the sword in my hand, I spread my hand and again intoned, “[Wind Wall]!”
Two of the bullets had struck me in the process– very painful– before the shield was back in place.
Why had I dropped it in the first place? I have difficulty maintaining a [Wind Wall] while I’m running. Imagine trying to run while you juggle, or play guitar, or something.
While I looked down to check my dress, seriously expecting holes in the fabric where the bullets had struck, since both shots had hit me in the torso, I asked Durandal, “Can you see the enemy, old man?”
I saw no damage. I knew Grandmother’s enchantments included damage resistance, but I hadn’t known they could take damage at that level. This dress qualified as a bonafide magic tool, or maybe even magical body armor.
I can, My Lady, and you’re about to, as well, Durandal replied.
“Eh?” was the only intelligent reply I could make, but exactly on cue, the foliage, filled with Earth and Water mana, began to snake and curl around.
I struggled to identify the nature of the attack– my experience with Möemnen’s plant manipulation skills, less than an hour ago, was painfully fresh on my mind– but instead of seeing an attack, I gaped in astonishment at the leaves and branches as they formed into a massive face.
Everything on the face moved exactly like living flesh. ‘Muscles’ flexed under ‘cheeks’ that stretched as the ‘jaw’ clenched and the ‘lips’ pressed together in anger. The ‘forehead’ furrowed, the ‘brows’ bunched, the ‘nostrils’ flared, and finally, the ‘eyes’ opened in a fierce glare. But this face was a mass of leaves and branches as wide as my wingspan, glaring at me from the forest edge. It wasn’t an actual head. I could see through gaps in the leaves into the forest beyond.
“MONSTER BEGONE!” the giant bellowed, and a new hail of water bullets came at me from various points in the interval between its left and right ears. I moved farther away from the mortals so they wouldn’t be hit by accident. To my relief, Durandal was able to continue shielding them.
I had the sense the attacks were stronger now, and that brought my attention to something deep in the woods behind the face, getting closer. Quickly, I realized that that presence was the real source of this onslaught, the point from which all this activity was actually originating, and as it came closer, it was becoming stronger.
I needed to put a stop to this. I held the sword out in front of me, sideways, aimed above the head of the oncoming threat, and called out, “[Holy Strike!]”
The Aether formation drew itself from Durandal’s tip, arching over to the pommel, then underneath back to the start, to form the complete circle, glowing bright just before the bolt shot forth from the middle of the blade into the trees.
I only have enough pneuma for a handful of holy attacks, My Lady, Durandal complained. Why would you waste one on a warning shot?
“I’m not trying to start a new battle. I just don’t want him to come any closer.”
My gamble had paid off. The presence halted.
Do you know what you face, My Lady? It’s quite rare.
“My mother taught me about them,” I answered, since I had finally identified it just a few seconds before he asked. “This is a green man, right?”
She also told me I might never actually meet one. They are so rare that she had told me she had only met a green man once, herself. Of course, male fairies in general are already rare, but green men are the male counterparts to the already uncommon dryads.
That made me a bit nervous, considering Möemnen, but this guy was trying to drive me away, not keep me.
The majority true fairies of the field and forest are nymphs and their male counterparts, satyrs. Nymphs are much more numerous than dryads, so naturally satyrs are the more likely male fairies to meet here in the countryside. According to Mother, there may not be a dozen green men in the entire world.
The presence in the background, not the giant face in the foliage, was the actual fairy behind the scenes. The manipulation of foliage to create the face, and the creation and firing of magic attacks from within the illusion, were his innate racial skill. As the most reclusive of fairy-kind, green men dislike coming into contact with anyone except to fellow fairies.
When Mother taught Tiana about them, Tiana had received the impression the forest faces and other manifestations that they used to deal with outsiders were just normal Light magic illusions. She had not understood that it was the actual flora of the forest itself being manipulated to create the effect. Maybe if she had understood, then Möemnen’s skill would not have been such a surprise. Clearly, it was the same style of magic at work, only the green man was using a very specialized version of it.
The face glowered at me. “Leave this place, monster! I am the guardian of these children! Cause any further harm to them, and I shall destroy you!”
My stress went down just slightly. The intimidation of Durandal’s powerful magic had worked, enough to make the fairy wish to end the fight with my withdrawal.
“Harm?” I retorted, “I was trying to help him!”
“My.. My Lord…” I heard a rough voice to the side. I glanced over to see, much to my relief, the halfling mage pushing himself upright.
Ignoring him, the face roared, “Help, indeed! The small ones sent the signal of an attack!”
“My Lord!” the halfling called out with a stronger voice “The succubus was not the danger! She came to our aid!”
I added no words to his. I simply pointed down the path toward the dead snake.
The eyes actually looked that direction. I don’t know if the fairy actually sees what the leafy eyes point at, or if it is just part of the illusion, but they seriously turned that way. The face’s expression softened then. It looked back to the halfling.
“She defended you?”
“Yes, My Lord. And when you came, she was… healing me?” He finished the statement with a tone of confusion.
I was growing very concerned about how bad his voice sounded. And he was audibly wheezing.
The green face developed an expression of pondering, to the extent of actually pursing its lips. Perhaps the foliage was creating a projection of the fairy’s actual expressions.
I looked more closely at the now-perplexed halfling.
“You’re still wounded,” I concluded. I couldn’t see the problem, but I could see that his condition was bad from how he was acting. “I was interrupted before I could properly heal you. May I finish?”
The mage replied with wonder. “You really were healing me, weren’t you? I didn’t think it was possible for a monster.”
“Shall I finish it?” I pressed. It was becoming really obvious that his lungs had suffered some serious trauma. Belatedly, I remembered that Giant Snakes also had a poison breath attack. This halfling must have breathed some of it.
“You should heal yourself first,” the face noted. “I should like to see how you do it.”
The belief seems to be pretty deeply ingrained that monsters can’t use healing magic. Many monsters do regenerate themselves with extreme speed, but they use a racial trait to do it, not Healing mana. I don’t know if it is an absolute fact of monster biology that they can’t use healing magic, but I suspect that my ability to do it comes from my fairy half. Which might explain why it tortures my monster half so much.
I glanced at my arm and saw it was still badly burned by the acid. The healing I was circulating was preventing it from hurting or getting worse, but the initial damage was still there.
Taking some of that mana, I intoned, “[Heal]” to cast it on my arm.
To my surprise, it didn’t hurt as much, although it still felt awfully hot. It was just no longer broiling temperature. It was like something was helping me hold it back a bit.
After a moment, I recognized the ‘something’ to in fact be my new core. I could feel how it gave me better control of what I was doing. Although the healing wasn’t nearly instantaneous like before, it was still rapid, and soon the skin of my arm was perfectly blemish-free once again.
It probably didn’t prove anything to the mage– Healing wouldn’t look any different from a monster’s regeneration powers, I figured– but the green man’s fairy sight would be telling him it was true Healing. He was convinced.
“I will allow it,” he stated, the ‘head’ tipping slightly toward the halflings.
I walked back to the mage, circulating the remaining Healing mana and once again intoning, “[Heal]”.
It went smoothly. I could see in his expression that the heat of Healing was still difficult to tolerate, but it clearly was no longer the torture I had been inflicting on patients until now. And I was grateful to see his breathing soon return to normal and his complexion become the usual healthy, ruddy hue that a halfling is meant to have.
“Thank you,” he told me once I finished, while the two happy children hugged him. “And thank you for saving these children as well. They’re orphans. With no parent to carry them, they were left behind. I nearly didn’t make it in time to protect them. If I were a stronger man…”
“You had enough strength to hold out until help arrived, young sir,” I answered firmly. Now that he no longer looked haggard and half-dead, I had realized that he was possibly no more than a teenager. Calling him ‘young sir’ when he was probably still older than me– halflings mature slower than humans– might have been a bit cheeky, but I was trying to project the authority of a knight out of habit.
“You have my thanks as well,” the face of leaves intoned. “But forgive me, I must still ask you to leave. My treaty with these mortals obliges me to ban all monsters from this place. We did not consider civilized ones when we made the treaty. Your kind are quite rare in this country.”
It was rude, but I didn’t care. The apologetic tone at least gave me the comfort of knowing the green man knew it was rude. I wanted to leave, anyway. I nodded. “That’s fine. I was just passing by.”
His next words surprised me just a little though. “Your Highness, as a token of my gratitude, I shall warn you that the clan lords are demanding that citizens of Faerie find and detain you. I have no interest in their petty squabbles and will tell no one of your passing.”
But you knew who I was, when you attacked me?
But it occurred to me, maybe he didn’t. I decided to be gracious and assume he didn’t realize my identity until he saw me using healing magic, evidence of my fairy half.
With a curtsey of acknowledgment, I answered, “Thank you.”
Synopsis: Somewhere in the universe, there was an altar. On it, laid a bloody eye as big as the sun itself. It burst with light and bathed the entire star system in red.
"The aura of an ancestral artifact!" Someone's voice rose in surprise.
The Great Galactic Era had begun.